The Heart of Yoga

"Do you keep a vegetarian diet?" "No." "Do you drink?" "Yes." "What is your spiritual name?" "I don't have one." "What is your mantra?" "I don't remember." 

If there was a test to enter the Ashram, I failed. I arrived to my Advanced Yoga Teacher Training late, a bit hungover, with pepperoni pizza still in my colon--vestiges of a weekend spent with dear friends. I was quickly ushered into a room to have my personal interview with the assembled Swamis. They asked me the above listed questions, and I answered, honestly. And thankfully, they let me stay (though truth be told I was ready to bolt after my inquisition). 

I've been practicing yoga for sixteen years. I started going to class with my mom when I was fifteen--when the order of the day at her gym was Jane Fonda style step aerobics--and yoga was edgy (at least for the North Carolina country club crowd). Our teacher was remarkable, and decidedly not a gym rat. She introduced us to the truth that yoga is so much more than the postures on the mat. But despite having her sound guidance, yoga largely remained a physical practice for me.

I signed up to take my initial 200 hour Yoga Teacher's Training course in 2011. I picked a program based on timing. I was free in May and one of the Sivananda Ashrams was offering a course at that time. It is not an exaggeration to say, I truly had no idea what I'd signed up for. I had vague expectations of lots of spandex clad people doing down dogs and drinking kale juice, and I could not have been more wrong. When I arrived, I was issued my uniform: large, loose white cotton pants and a large yellow tee shirt, which we had to wear each day for a month. Our mornings began at 5:30 am and went until 10 pm. And of those hours, only two were spent doing asanas (physical postures) on the mat. The rest of the hours were devoted to the other aspects of Yoga. 

Yoga, as defined in the Yoga Sutras compiled by Patanjali, is: "restraining the activities of the mind" so that the perceiver can "rest in his/her own true nature," which yoga defines as "Brahman" or "sat-chit-ananda" (existence, knowledge, and bliss absolute). Achieving this, as it turns out, is infinitely harder than a headstand. The full practice of yoga includes four paths: Karma Yoga (the yoga of service), Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), Raja Yoga (the yoga of concentration), and Jnana Yoga (the yoga of wisdom). While different temprements will naturally incline to one yoga path over another,  a complete yoga path will include all four.

Raja Yoga (the yoga of concentration), is sometimes called Ashtanga Yoga (ashtanga meaning eight limbs) because it can be subdivided into eight progressive steps. These are the: Yamas (abstentions), the Niyamas (observances), the Asanas (physical postures), Pranayama (regulation of breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from sense objects), Dhyana (concentration), Dharana (meditation), and Samadhi (the superconscious state). So even with the most generous math, the Asanas (physical practice) are a mere 3% of yoga. 

Clearly, for most people in the United States (and I imagine many other countries), the physical practice is their practice. There is nothing wrong with strictly having an asana practice, it's just that it is inaccurate to call it a yoga practice. And while I am back at a Sivananda Ashram this month for another spin into the full spectrum of yoga, the reality is that outside of the Ashram, my yoga practice is heavily weighted towards an asana practice, and I like my spandex yoga pants and my kale juice (and my cocktails and my burgers too). And the parallel reality is that I really do like, and find so much value in, how I am spending my days at the Ashram right now, and I aspire to truly practice yoga (all paths) more authentically going forward. Both, and. So how to carry the inherent contradictions?

A mentor of mine once told me, "Half of life is figuring out which contradictions you are willing to live with." I know I am not going to move the Ashram full time, but I would certainly like to move towards a quieter mind. The moments of concentration, I've gotten during meditation practice after two weeks at the Ashram are all the proof I need to know that concentration (and perhaps some fine day meditation) is a worthy aspiration, that deserves dedication and practice.